Afghanistan: a human rights catastrophe unfolds
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is a human rights catastrophe, particularly for women and civil society. Western states that intervened in Afghanistan now have a clear moral responsibility to accept and resettle refugees. As the Taliban insurgent force seeks to transition into government, there is a need for unified international action to make respect for human rights, particularly women’s rights, and safe passage for refugees conditions of any granting of international recognition or foreign aid.
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban marks an abject failure of two decades of US foreign policy. It naturally suggests a need for a profound questioning of the established practices of the USA and its allies. But it’s important not to see the resurgence of the Taliban as only a foreign policy failure. For many in Afghanistan, and for Afghan women in particular, what has happened is a human rights catastrophe.
The abrupt collapse of the Afghan forces following US withdrawal shows that the intervention never succeeded in building an effective state and dismantling the threat of the Taliban. What began as a revenge mission against a soft target in retaliation for the 9/11 atrocity was never designed with the aim of producing lasting human rights gains. But just as initial intervention was wrong, so was sudden withdrawal. The debacle, preceded by years of funding cuts, speaks of a mindset that puts military and security considerations first with everything else an add-on. But deep change can never be enforced at gunpoint.
Women’s voices fall silent
In the spaces created while the Taliban was kept at bay, civil society was able to come to life to start tackling some of the many deep problems Afghani citizens face, including insecurity, poverty and the denial of rights. Women were able to begin challenging their subjugation, imposed under the previous Taliban regime. Even though the challenges were still severe, with activists facing considerable danger, women became more visible in public life and organised to demand rights.
The response to the Taliban’s takeover has, understandably, been self-defence. While admirably there have been some women-led protests, for many, self-protection has once again meant accepting invisibility, through donning the burka, adopting self-censorship and concealing their education. Women are disappearing from public life. Already women-led businesses have closed, women sportspeople are erasing social media profiles and burning their kits and most women journalists have fallen silent.
The Taliban currently presents itself as a more responsible force than that which first claimed power in 1996. It positioned itself as such when it participated in ‘peace processes’ convened by both Russia and the USA. But it is impossible to see the Taliban’s participation in peace talks as sincere, and hard to avoid the suspicion that it was doing anything but buying time, giving the USA just enough of the reassurance it needed to withdraw. There is little in this to suggest its promises can be trusted. Women’s groups long complained of being excluded from peace talks; perhaps their voices, if heard, would have counselled against the apparent strategy of trying to appease the Taliban.
The Taliban’s claims of moderation are also belied by its behaviour in its surge towards Kabul, in which civilians and journalists, and particularly women journalists, were targeted, with several reports of assassinations. Already there is evidence that scores are being settled, lists of activists are being circulated, raids are being carried out on the homes of civil society staff and the Taliban is going door-to-door looking for people who worked for the Afghan government and military, or who are perceived as having collaborated with the USA. There have been credible reports of summary executions. There has been reported violence towards people from the Hazara minority, long a target of the Taliban.
Women are being harassed, intimidated, threatened with forced marriage and rendered unable to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. For those living under the Taliban, these deeds matter more than words. The Taliban’s promises that women will be safe provided they accept its ultra-conservative moral strictures speak not of rights but merely a grim bargain: repression as the price of avoiding something even worse.
A duty to accept migrants
Understandably the response of many, including from civil society, has been to try to flee the country, leading to harrowing scenes at Kabul’s airport. It should be clear that western states, particularly those that led the intervention, have an overwhelming moral duty to receive refugees in consequence of their foreign police failure. They should prioritise the safe migration and reception of women’s human rights defenders, other prominent women at threat, civil society personnel and journalists.
Western states, particularly those that led the intervention, have an overwhelming moral duty to receive refugees in consequence of their foreign police failure.
However, the picture is mixed. Several European states were deporting people back to Afghanistan and dragging their feet on issuing visas even as the Taliban was advancing. States have been quick to repatriate their nationals and evacuate some Afghanis who worked for them, although many others were left abandoned when the USA pulled out of Kabul airport. When it comes to the many stranded in danger, the European Union’s (EU) plan seems to be to keep as many of them away as possible.
An aid package of €600 million (approx. US$709 million) is being proposed to states that border Afghanistan to host refugees, but Turkey has already said it will not accept any more, and on the other side of the EU’s border, Greece has adopted a similar stance. French President Emmanuel Macron, who faces an election next year, called for a ‘robust plan’ for Europe to ‘protect itself’ from a wave of migrants, evidently putting his own political fortunes first in a move that seemed to designed to appeal to those who might vote for the far-right.
In the UK, the USA’s most enthusiastic partner in the 2001 intervention, a low target of 20,000 refugees over an implausible five-year timescale has been set, along with a promise to increase aid, although not to the level prior to the recent aid cuts, a clear signal of its low priority.
None of this is good enough. It is now urgent to provide safe haven to those directly hurt by this series of foreign policy failures.
A closing window for a coordinated response
As the Taliban makes the transition from insurgent force to incumbent government, international recognition represents a key bargaining chip. The Taliban in government will need that recognition, not least as it faces economic meltdown, with most of its hard currency reserves held and now frozen in the USA, and Special Drawing Rights from the International Monetary Fund – a supplementary form of international currency for states – also on hold.
There is a closing window of opportunity and states should work together rather than grant recognition unilaterally. States should extract firm commitments as the price of accepting Afghanistan’s place in the international order and of providing frozen financing and the aid that will surely be needed to respond to a looming humanitarian crisis. These should include commitments to uphold essential women’s rights, end reprisals against civil society and those who worked with the ousted government and allow those who want to leave to do safely.
Early signs are however not promising. China and Russia are circling: Russia held early talks with the Taliban and China is said to be intensifying its diplomacy. Motivations here may include strategic advantage over the USA and the economic benefits of controlling reconstruction and mineral extraction. Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Iran both have self-interested reasons to work with the Taliban as each seek to extend regional influence as part of their ongoing disputes with India and Saudi Arabia respectively.
Hopes of coordinated action received a blow at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which on 24 August issued a weak resolution, sponsored by Pakistan, that failed even to mention the Taliban by name and stopped short of any commitment to send a mission to gather evidence of rights violations. Following the horrific attack on Kabul airport on 26 August, the UN Security Council finally managed to pass a resolution urging the Taliban to provide safe passage to anyone wishing to leave, but did not outline the consequences if the Taliban fails to comply. Disturbingly, China and Russia both abstained rather than vote for this resolution.
If the people of Afghanistan have been let down by one failed foreign policy intervention after another, there is little hope that those states that see the Taliban takeover as an opportunity will have people’s interests at heart. It is not time to trust the Taliban, but it is time to hold a high line on making any international cooperation conditional on human rights compliance. Anything less will only embolden the Taliban, and terrorists everywhere.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States should immediately accept refugees, prioritising women human rights defenders and other threatened women, civil society activists and journalists, and work with civil society to help them and their families resettle.
States should make respect for human rights, and particularly women’s rights, an end to reprisals and safe passage for those who wish to leave a precondition for diplomatic recognition of the new regime and any resumption of foreign aid.
United Nations human rights institutions should monitor and report on human rights violations and compliance with human rights rules, including by maintaining a presence on the ground.